Category Archives: Book Reviews

Everything I never told you #BookReview

Book: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng

‘Lydia is dead’ says the opening line of this book. However don’t go into it thinking it to be a thriller and you’ll love it.

This is the story of…

a mixed race couple, Marilyn and James Lee, and their children Lydia, Nathan and Hannah.

Lydia is clearly the parents’ favourite. She is the focus of their lives and carries the burden of their expectations. Marilyn wants Lydia to become a doctor and sees it as the fulfilment of her own childhood dream. James on the other hand has always struggled to fit in being a child of Chinese parents. He wants Lydia to have friends, to be a ‘regular American teen’.

Nathan and Hannah get stray bits of their parent’s attention. Nath is bullied by Lee to the point where he begins to doubt himself. He is by turns resentful and sympathetic towards Lydia. Hannah remains an invisible presence longing for her parents’ as well as her siblings’ affection. She is an insightful little girl observing much more than she’s given credit for.

Then one day Lydia disappears. A few days later her body is fished out from a lake. That’s when the delicate threads that hold the family unravel, spilling out ugly secrets. Is it a murder? Is it a suicide? Does her friendship with their neighbour Jack have anything to do with it?

What I thought of it

Although a murder mystery forms the core of the narrative, the book is the story of a family, its criss crossing relationships and the desire of every child to be loved and accepted.

Each of the characters is beautifully etched with strong back stories that explain clearly why they behave the way they do. That is what makes this book exceptionally readable and relatable.

One can see where Marilyn and James are coming from, why they want what they do for Lydia. And yet one can also see its terrible consequences.

The relationship between Nath and Lydia is beautifully portrayed. Nath obviously resents her and yet the two share an unsaid understanding. He knows that the constant attention of her parents annoys and upsets Lydia and he tries to deflect it too, not always with happy results.

Everything I never told you talks about how expectations can weigh down a child no matter how honourable the intentions. It brings home the fact that parents can sometimes pressurise their children without even being aware of it. There’s the obvious coercion where they push, nag and reprimand and then there’s emotional coercion which isn’t as obvious and yet can be far more overwhelming and potent. Worse still, it leaves little room for refusal or rebellion because one isn’t being coerced overtly at all.

That’s a dangerous place to be in.

Oh I felt for Lydia. I know children like her – the ‘good girls’ who struggle to deliver at every level. But what happens if they cannot? What if they do not want what their parents want for them and can never say it for fear of breaking their parents’ hearts? So intense and palpable is the constant tension in Lydia’s life that one almost feels a sense of relief as the waters of the lake close on her.

As a mom to twins who worries constantly about dividing time and attention fairly between them the focus on Lydia seemed incongruous. That was perhaps the single jarring factor of the book. However, that’s not to say I haven’t seen it happen. It definitely does, thought perhaps it isn’t as blatant.

Last thought: A wonderful read about love and family and expectations. Definitely worth a read.

Advertisements

Jet Lag #BookReview

Book: Jet Lag
Author: Ann Birstein

I took up JetLag on a recommendation from Sonali’s Book Club. That it was a World War II book was of course another big reason.

This is a travelogue..

..by the author who signs up for a European Discovery Tour – a trip that would take her to Jewish sites across Eastern Europe. She feels the need to explore her Jewish roots, to see the ‘origin’ as she puts it.

Along with her on the tour is a group of people each prompted by their own reasons. They travel from Warsaw and Auschwitz to Lithuania, Chez Republic and Hungary visiting all the sites of the horrible tragedy that was WW II. In Lithuania she visits the Yeshiva (Jewish Educational Institution) where her father had studied and tries to imagine what his life would have been like.

What I liked

The book brings home the tragedy in all its horror. Through Ann and her erudite guide we get to know of countless stories of life in the ghettos. These are stories of horror of course yet also of hope because people continued to believe that the madness had to end.

The Jews led almost regular lives, at least initially. They ran libraries, taught music and organised children’s operas. It is amazing how people kept on living ‘normal’ lives even in the most cruel, abnormal conditions. It shocked me to realise how easily we adapt to and accept whatever circumstances we are forced to live in. And that, I believe, is the biggest lesson history teaches us – to protest an unfair act no matter how small.

Many of them defied the rules too. They did it systematically and repeatedly till even that became their new normal. Above all, they wrote and photographed, constantly chronicling whatever was happening around them, leaving it all for posterity even as their numbers depleted day by day with groups of them being transported to the ovens.

Some instances talked about in the book will stay with me for a long time.

There were mentions of people like Emanuel Ringelblum the Warsaw Ghetto chronicler, Photographer George Kadish from Kovno, Lithuania and Abraham Sutzkever with his lyrical yet terrible descriptions of the holocaust. I spent hours looking each of them up on the Net and following their pictures.

The statistics are stunning in their enormity.

What could have been better

While the ghetto stories were inspiring as well as heart-breaking, the memoir didn’t draw me in. The narrative never became personal hence turned dull in parts.

Also, the people on the tour didn’t really come together as a group. I missed the warmth, the mutual sympathy that comes through a shared tragedy. Most of them had back stories but they were rather tenuous ones and I couldn’t connect with them with the exception of Rita and Max. They had both been at the concentration camps when they were young. Rita, as an 18-year-old, was incarcerated at Auschwitz and her husband Max was on the Schildler’s List. Their stories were moving, their dignity in the face of trauma, impressive. A book from their perspective would be worth a read.

I struggled with Yiddish terms and was glad I was reading it on the Kindle so I could look up the words as I went along.

Last thought: This one certainly deserves a read, however it is more of a fact file on WWII than a personal narrative.

Click here to buy this book

The World’s Worst Children 3 #Review

Book Title: The World’s Worst Children 3
Author: David Walliams

Here is a book that’s quintessentially David Walliams. What? Haven’t read Walliams yet? Well then, this is a good place to start.

The World’s Worst Children 3, is the third book (obviously!) in this series of the terriblest children you’re ever going to meet. There are ten short stories about ten terrors. Walliams imbues his protagonists with one troublesome flaw after another, building up their ‘atrocities’ till you’re clamouring for an end. Of course the end comes and in the most traditional, old-fashioned way.

There’s Walter the Wasp with a tongue that spews insults, there’s Hanks Pranks who can’t help but play pranks, there’s Boastful Barnabus who cannot stop boasting and a host of others. They offer a bunch of laughs as they trouble, tease and torment finally meeting their just desserts, leaving a lesson for young readers.

Some stories hit the spot to perfection. For instance there was Honey the Hogger – the tale of a girl who hogs the loo making her brother squirm when he needs to pee. This could have been lifted straight from my home. Oh and Kung Fu Kylie was a bit of a wicked winner, delivering a chop to her Geography teacher for giving her an F. That’s something I’d definitely not propagate, but the appeal to kids is undeniable.

This is the kind of book a child can open at any page and begin to read. Replete with delightful alliterations, it makes for a fun adventure, even though my children are a little over age for it. The illustrations by Tony Ross are gorgeous and the glossy pages add to its good looks.

Walliams picks up Dahl’s formula of strong children as protagonists set off by rather weak adults and takes it forward with élan. As an adult I have enjoyed a few of his books (The Boy in the Dress) while some others I have found over-the-top. I give three stars to this particular collection because it offered some laughs yet had nothing new to offer and not much of a storyline either. Also, I really have to mention, that the first story, The Terrible Triplets, had me gagging. But that’s my point of view as an adult.

As a mom to twins, I do know that children have a whole different reaction to all things gross and are rarely as freaked out as adults. They also seem to revel in repetitions laughing over passages just as hard each time as they had the very first time they read it. For them the book is a winner.

It provided us with a welcome change during the rather stressful exam season.

Last thought: I’ll put this one down as a fun read for children.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Night Rainbow – A hauntingly beautiful read

Book Title: The Night Rainbow
Author: Claire King

What do you do if you lose your papa in an accident and your maman, pregnant with a baby, moves to a far away place in her head where you cannot reach her? In a place where she cannot abide loud noises, cooks when she feels up to it but mostly keeps to her room?

Well, you take care of yourself the best you can even if you’re just five. You make sure you don’t bother maman, you play in the meadow, splash around in the stream and eat fruits or make yourself a sandwich when you’re hungry. Most of all, you try to find ways to make maman happy because you want her back with all the wanting in your little heart.

That’s the story

..of five and half year old Peony, better known as Pea, her little sister Margot and their mum Joanna. As Joanna loses herself to depression the two little girls are left to their own devices. They spend their days talking and playing. During their wanderings they meet a man, Claude and Merlin his dog, and strike up a friendship. Claude keeps his distance even though he is affectionate and caring but the girls come to look upon him as the father figure they miss so much.

Set in the summer of a small French village, that is the all the plot you’ll find in The Night Rainbow. It isn’t much, so if you’re looking for a story you will be disappointed. Nothing really happens. The narrative has the dull sameness of the  routine of Pea’s days. As you progress through the pages you wait for something to happen. You wait for the market days when Pea gets to go out with her mum as much as she does. You look forward to her interactions with Calude or even the small chance encounters with other village folk.

But here’s the thing, the book draws you in. You step into it and you feel what Pea is feeling. You find yourself grinning when she manages to draw a smile from Joanna, you cringe in the dark with her as she battles her imagined monsters and you want to hold her and hug away her yearning for a real family.

This one isn’t meant to be read for its racy narrative, it is one of those soul-stirring stories whose beauty lies in its slowness. There’s a bit of a revelation towards the end which makes the story even more poignant. And I wonder how I missed it through the book.

Perhaps the book affected me as it did because it spoke in a child’s voice.

Pea was a delightful heroine. Sometimes she seems a trifle old for her age but I forgave her considering she’s had to run her life on her own. I had to try hard to not get judgemental about Joanna. Mothers cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing into themselves when they have a five-year-olds to look out for. My heart broke for Pea as she tries, tries ever so hard to make Joanna happy. Her deep yearning to bring a smile to her maman’s face, for the hugs, the kisses and the cuddles, for the warmth of the old times and her childish attempts towards that are heartbreaking. When she fights the night demons, her loneliness is palpable and yet so strong is her concern for Joanna that she is refuses to wake her up.

There were times where I wanted to shake Joanna out of her depression. If that were even possible. But when I would put away the  judgemental mum in me I’d feel so so sorry for her. To have lost a baby first then your husband, to be far away from your own home, with hostile in-laws, heavily pregnant and all alone – how terrible must that be. She tries. She cooks somedays and smiles too but the sadness weighs too heavily on her leaving her lethargic and uncaring.

Though Pea rarely cries or even complains, her longing is tangible and that is what makes this a sad, haunting, beautiful read. When Shelly said ‘the most beautiful songs were born out of the saddest things’ he could have been talking about The Night Rainbow.

Last thought: It’s definitely worth a read but it’s likely to pull you down into a well of sadness so pick it up with care.

This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info

The Legend of Genghis Khan – A #Review

Book Title: The Legend of Genghis Khan
Author: Sutapa Basu

Before I picked up Genghis Khan by Sutapa Basu all I knew about him was that he was an ancestor of Babur and a very cruel one at that. There have been several great conquerers who have set out to own the world. I find them intriguing. What drives them? Power? Money? What keeps them going in the face of extreme adversity? How do they motivate an entire army of people to believe in their cause, to follow them and their dream, to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks?

For those reasons I found The Legend of Genghis Khan fascinating – the man, the story, the story telling – all of it.

The Story

Born as Temujin to the leader of a Mongol tribe, Genghis Khan is prophesied to be a great man. A shaman interprets the signs at the time of his birth that signal the makings of a conqueror. That’s the thought that little Temujin grows up with. He accepts it and owns it till it becomes a belief firmly rooted in his mind and later, the biggest truth of his life. It is this thought – that he is destined to craft a vast Mongolian empire – that remains his guiding light during the darkest times of despair and through the toughest decisions of his life. He pursues it with awe-inspiring single mindedness.

The Review

No fictional tale could compete with Genghis Khan’s life. He goes from being a clan leader’s pampered son to a fatherless boy, to a leader himself, then a helpless captive in a hostile land until he finally realises his destiny. Khan’s life was a roller coaster.

The book begins with his men plundering a palace, destroying, burning, killing and taking prisoner. Among the prisoners is princess Enkhtuya. When she is brought before the Khan, something about her makes him pause.

Then on the story flits between the present and past with glimpses of the Khan’s childhood, even as he and his men plan and launch attack after attack conquering vast territories.

The introduction of Princess Enkhtuya was a brilliant thought. Her character added a whole new dimension to Genghis Khan. Basu manages to give us a glimpse of his gentler side, without taking away from the image of a ruthless conqueror. For some mysterious reason he has a soft spot for her, yet he remains focussed on his life’s mission and none of her entreaties can persuade him to show mercy to his enemies.

The story flows simply and well as we follow the Khan through dry desert areas with raging sandstorms to freezing ice lands. The writing is evocative and the characters consistent.

It is a storyteller’s delight as well as a challenge. The research must have been mind-boggling. What I loved most is the objectivity with which Basu approaches this story. It is easy, almost natural, to admire/love your protagonist and to go on to justify him/his actions. Sutapa Basu manages to not to do that. She tells the tale like a seasoned chronicler remaining true to the tale and nothing else. She writes without attempting to glorify Genghis Khan – without apologies, without explanations – a little like the man himself. She lets his faults and his achievements speak for themselves. 

The Legend of Genghis Khan skilfully treads the line between history and fiction. Read this one for some great story telling.

Last thought: If you’re not a non-fiction reader but are a bit of a history buff this book is for you.

Linking up with the Write Tribe Reading Challenge – This is my review for ‘A book by an author new to me’.

Salt to the Sea – A #Review

Book Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Septeys

The more I read about the Second World War, the more I realise how little I know. So here’s another WWII story, another perspective, another group of people displaced from their homes and homeland in search of peace.

The Story

The War is almost at an end. Germany is on the back foot, though refusing to acknowledge it even as the Russian Army advances, raping and killing along its way. Through this terrifying chaos, four refugees – two Germans, a Pole and a Lithuanian – with dark tortured pasts, try to escape the war, making their way to the coast of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to board a ship to safety.

Even after they board the Wilhelm Gustloff their struggles don’t end. For one, they still have secrets to hide. Also the German ship is a target for Russian torpedoes even if all it carries are wounded soldiers, women and children.

Four protagonists, Four POVs, Many stories

The story is told through four points of view, with each of the characters getting two or three pages at a time. It took me a few pages to get used to it but then narrative caught pace and didn’t flag till the very end.

The success of a book like this one depends on how much and how soon the reader gets invested in the characters and their lives. I found myself gripped by not just the four main ones but by many others too. I wanted to know their stories, their families, their background and the past they were hiding. The secrets were revealed slowly over the pages leaving me horrified and amazed by turns. I wanted them desperately to find the safety they craved, I mourned them as much as their friends in the novel.

The journey

A large part of the book talks about journey of the four protagonists to the ship. It is a passage plagued with fear. The biggest threat is from the Russians who are technically the liberators, but are just as vicious as the Nazis, claiming all they find as victors’ spoils. There are the Nazis themselves who wouldn’t hesitate to persecute a Polish girl or a deserter as also the old and disabled. Above all there’s hunger and cold. Septeys descriptions brought home how cruel, how persistent and how insidious the two can be, cutting through layers of meagre clothing, freezing and starving victims to death.

On the ship

Images of surging desperate crowds anxious to board the ship with their belongings, often reduced to a single bag, were heart wrenching. There were moms throwing their children onto the ship hoping they’d get to safety or ‘buying’ children hoping they’d be their passport for the voyage – those are scenes that’ll remain with me for a long time. Desperation makes one act in ways one never thinks of. It brings out the best in people and also the worst.

I must mention that though Salt to the Sea talks about struggle and fear and loss, it isn’t a sad book. It has moments of warmth and genuine goodness that make it worth a read.

Last Thought: This one has to be read.

To buy the book at Amazon click on the picture below.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – A #Review

Book Title: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Author: Stephen Chbosky

I’d heard a lot about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It was also the winner of the award for the Best Young Adult book for the year 2000. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I picked it up, specially because I knew nothing of the story at all.

A coming of age book..

…of 15 year old Charlie. He is about to start High School but isn’t at all ready to jump into the crazy whirlpool that High School is. The recent suicide of his friend has left him traumatised. The passing away of his beloved aunt haunts him too. Painfully shy and a complete introvert Charlie enters school which begins on not a very happy note. However, soon enough, he befriends siblings Patrick and Sam and a whole new world opens up to him – a world of friends, dating and music as also of drugs and sex. The book talks about how Charlie manoeuvres himself through that first year at High School.

The book deals with a very wide range of issues ..

– suicide, PTSD, bullying, drugs, homosexuality, young sex, incest, abuse, rape – the entire gamut that plagues young people. It was published in the nineties, a time when these subjects weren’t as freely discussed as they now are. Which is perhaps why scores of teens identified with it. It isn’t tough to imagine that every youngster at that age is a little bit unsure and lost and struggles with one of more of these issues. That makes Charlie identifiable and his story relatable. It is definitely a brave book for its times. Some of its quotes went viral too. Remember this one?

We choose the love we think we deserve.

It is an epistolary novel ..

…where Charlie writes to an imaginary friend. That’s where the trouble started for me. Charlie’s voice just didn’t sound like that of a fifteen year old. He writes like a middle schooler, which would have been acceptable if he hadn’t also been an advanced English student, apparently much ahead of his peers and the favourite of his English teacher.

Also, his world view too seems that of an 8-year-old which was confusing. His knowledge about girls, boys, love, sex and drugs is so very rudimentary. Assuming he had a over-protected life at home, (which is tough, given that he has an older brother and sister), surely he has been around other children, peers and that should have given him some idea.

I wondered for bit if he was autistic going by the way he ‘reports’ events rather than writes about them, plus there’s his exceptional talent for English. Or perhaps he had Asperger’s going by his social ineptness. However, the fact remained unexplained. And that shall bug me forever.

While the teen issues never really lose relevance, there have been a number of coming-of-age books since this one (like Simon vs the Homosapein Agenda) that are much better, much more focussed in what they have to say.

Last thought: Don’t kill for it but do read it if it’s at your library.

Linking up with the Write Tribe Reading Challenge – This is my review for ‘A book that was a gift’. It came to me from my dear Secret Santa at the BAR Nibha Gupta.